The More Things Change...

Bill Gates, in 1987 as Microsoft CEO, and in 2003, as chairman of Microsoft
When I first started writing my syndicated column, twenty years ago this week, the state-of-the-art in computers was the IBM XT.

It came with 128 kilobytes (not megabytes) of memory and a 10 megabyte hard drive. The basic model sold for $5,000 but for $6,700 you could get it with a color screen and a printer. Adjusting for inflation that comes to $12,425 in today's dollars.

By contrast, Dell's $1,999 Dimension XPS (expensive by today's standards) comes with 4,000 times as much memory and 12,000 times as much storage, for less than a sixth of the inflation-adjusted price.

The XT was an enormous improvement over earlier PCs which required users to store all their software and data on 360 kilobyte floppy disks.

Laptop PCs didn't exist when I started the column. However, late in 1982, Compaq introduced the first "portable" PC that ran the same software as the then popular IBM PC (Adam Osborne introduced a portable PC in 1981 that ran a different operating system). Like the Osborne 1, the Compaq could best be described as "luggable." It weighed 28 pounds and barely fit into an airline overhead bin.

During the first couple of years of my column I commented on the evolution of the IBM PC with innovations as more memory (as much as 640 kilobytes) and enormous (20 megabyte) hard drives. I also watched as software evolved from simple stand alone products like the original spreadsheet (VisiCalc) to far more complex integrated products like Lotus 1-2-3 which combined a spreadsheet, database and the ability create charts and graphs.

What I remember most from the first few years of writing the column was the number of software companies that are no longer with us.

WordStar, from MicroPro was the leading word processing program but it was up against stiff competition from WordPerfect from a small Utah company called Satellite Software International. Lotus 1-2-3 was the leading spreadsheet but it had competition from VisiCalc and SuperCalc. The leading database program was dBase II from Ashton Tate.

To give you an idea of how small those programs were, I was able to store a copy of dBase II, SuperCalc and WordStar on a single 360 K floppy disk. The directory on my hard drive that stores Microsoft Office takes up 142 megabytes - the equivalent of 404 floppy disks.

Microsoft was doing quite well as the supplier of the operating system used by IBM and Compaq but it had very little impact when it came to software applications. Bill Gates introduced Microsoft Word in 1983 but it took years before it would overcome WordPerfect as a bestseller. Microsoft Excel, which now dominates the spreadsheet market, wasn't released until 1985.

1983 was the year that Microsoft announced that it was working on a graphical user interface called "Windows." The product wasn't officially released until 1985 and it didn't really catch on until 1990 when the company shipped Windows 3.0, the first version that was stable enough to use on a regular basis, though still quite buggy.

In January 1984, Apple introduced what was - at the time - the most exciting computer I had ever seen. Instead of typing obscure commands on a green monitor, you could select the programs you wanted to run by clicking on a mouse. The Mac also had a built-in sound processor which meant that you could hear real audio - even music - not just beeps. "I rarely get excited over a new computer," I wrote at the time, "but Apple's Macintosh has started a fever in Silicon Valley that's hard not to catch."

It took years for Microsoft to catch up with Apple (some would argue that it still hasn't) but today's computers have evolved to the point where they are now desktop or even laptop home entertainment centers.

Using the PC to go online has always been one of my favorite column topics. When I started writing the column I was using a 300 bit per second modem until I shelled out $699 for one of the first Hayes 1200 baud modems. Today's 56K modems are 377 times faster than my original modem and my digital subscriber line (DSL) is about 5,000 times as fast. The leading online services at the time were The Source and CompuServe.

AOL - which swallowed up both those companies - wasn't founded until 1985 and the World Wide Web wasn't created until 1990. AOL innovated by adding a graphical user interface to online activities. The Web changed history not only because of its ease of use but because it allowed almost anyone to create a Web site. The advent of the Web doesn't just belong in a history of technology; it will probably be remembered as one of the major advances of the 20th century.

Looking back on 20 years of columns I can't help but be struck by how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.

Computers have evolved dramatically yet they still bewilder and confuse people and they continue to be one of the most troublesome devices that we have in our homes and offices.

I don't know if I'll still be writing this column in 2023, but, if so, I sure hope I won't be writing about software bugs, viruses, pop-up ads, spam and hackers. As I said when I wrote my 15-year retrospective, the PC industry has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go.

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By Larry Magid